Is The Winchester Mystery House Really That Mysterious?
If you’ve heard of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, you’ve likely heard the folklore surrounding the owner and architect, Sarah Winchester. Obviously, a crazy lady endlessly building a house to confuse spirits is more interesting than a 7 story mansion reduced to 4 in the 1906 earthquake. Is the Winchester mansion really that mysterious? Or is it a highly successful marketing ploy by the owners, The Winchester Mystery House LLC, who began giving tours a mere 5 months after Sarah Winchester’s death in 1922? Join us as we delve deeper into the fascinating history of the Winchester Mystery House…
Sarah Winchester: The Facts
While the year is not known for certain, Sarah Winchester was born around 1840 to a wealthier family in New Haven Connecticut. She attended the best private schools and was apparently very intelligent, speaking 4 languages fluently as well as becoming accomplished at several musical instruments.
In 1862, Sarah married William, the heir of the Winchester fortune, who is only remembered by history for those two facts: his wife and the fortune. Their only child died tragically in 1866 after 6 brief weeks of life. In 1881, William died of tuberculosis, leaving Sarah over 20 million dollars and 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company. Income from the business alone brought her $1,000 per day, or what would have been $23,400 per day in 2013.
The Mansion’s History: According to The Winchester Mystery House LLC
Erin, our bubbly tour guide, described a woman overcome with grief over the loss of her infant child (1866) and her husband (1881). A woman who was apparently simultaneously traumatized by the deaths caused by The Gun that Won the West (aka the Henry rifle, 1873). Supposedly, she thought her family was cursed for the creation of the gun that killed so many. Worried about her own mortality, she followed the guidance of a medium/psychic and moved to San Jose. There she began never-ending construction of a complicated mansion to appease the spirits murdered by the Winchester Henry rifle.
Supposedly, every night Sarah retreated to what they call The Seance Room to converse with spirits in order to get the new building plans. They claim she ordered work to be undertaken 24/7 with hammers and saws never ceasing for 38 long years. As soon as a room was completed, she’d have it remodeled or new additions added, all to please the spirits she was so afraid of.
Wikipedia, as well as the guided tour, combine the infant’s and husband’s deaths together in time, painting the picture of a woman crippled by the premature death of her family. So her supposed extreme depression lasted 15 years, without any notable event (like an attempted suicide for example) and she began to attribute both deaths to the spirits killed by the Gun That Won the West? Even though her daughter died 7 years before this gun was ever used to murder anyone? To me, the dates don’t add up to logically conclude she was terrified of spirits coming for her as they did for her family. Let alone to be used as the excuse to justify the building of an eccentric mansion.
Also, if this reasoning is true, if Sarah was horrified by the destruction left in the wake of the Winchester riffle, why did she continue to own stock in the company? Her income and a portion of her fortune was derived from mass produced weapons. If she felt so strongly, wouldn’t she have at least sold her shares in the Winchester Repeating Arms Company?
So, if it’s not “The Mansion Designed by Spirits” as the owners would have us believe, why exactly was the Winchester Mansion built so erratically? Could it simply be the lack of a blueprint?
Sarah Winchester, the Genius
As opposed to the crackpot lady The Winchester Mystery House LLC describes, I think Sarah was actually a genius of her time. She implemented several conveniences pretty much unheard of around the turn of the century. Indoor plumbing provided toilets as well as a hot shower for Sarah. The mansion has 3 elevators, one of which she had the hydraulic piston installed horizontally. Despite the fact it takes up way more room, she supposedly preferred the ride.
There was an “annunciator” which allowed Sarah to request a servant wherever she was in the mansion. A bell would ring and a card dropped indicating the general area Sarah was in so the servant could find her quickly. The estate had it’s own gas plant feeding the gas lamps illuminating the mansion, which were turned on by pushing an electric button!
She designed a single porcelain tub for washing laundry. It included a soap tray, washboard, and ringer. Then when the laundry was dry, boards were pulled down over the sink to create a folding table.
Pretty brass plates were installed in the corners of each stair so they wouldn’t collect dust and to ease cleaning.
The North Conservatory is ingenious as well. With a faucet on either end of the room and a zinc floor built at a slight angle, all the runoff was directed to other places in the gardens by a series of drainpipes built throughout the house.
Why Is The Winchester Mystery House So Mysterious?
What is touted as an eccentric, confusing labyrinth appeared to me to be what would naturally result when constantly building without a blueprint. The most expensive window in the mansion, a Tiffany stained glass piece, was designed to refract rainbows across the room as the sun hit it. However, it was installed in a wall that eventually had a large wing of rooms built behind it, obscuring any direct light that could possibly transform the room.
Stepping out onto a fourth floor balcony, we awed at the view of the roof line below, a beautiful jumble of windows, gables, and skylights all at various random heights. While absolutely haphazard in nature, the mansion is awe-inspiring and lovely in it’s chaos.
One of the most notable oddities in the home, the Door to Nowhere, is a second story door that opens to a 20 foot drop to the concrete below. It is said this exists to scare away the spirits, but I think it’s quite likely Sarah intended it to eventually lead somewhere. Or, just as possible, the connecting room was damaged in the 1906 earthquake and never rebuilt.
Same thing with the infamous staircase to the ceiling. Perhaps the upper story collapsed with other parts of the home in the earthquake. Sarah only had the structural damage rebuilt, the rest was left as-is or boarded up. It’s also possible the staircase was meant to lead somewhere eventually, but with all the other work, she never got around to it.
Sarah Winchester’s biographer has found letters detailing Sarah’s assertion that after 10 years of building, the house is still not ready for visitors. Reclusive in nature, perhaps she continued building to avoid house guests, who tended to stay much longer in those days.
Honestly, we will likely never really know for certain, which for me holds the appeal to continue visiting. I’m positive the legend is untrue, maybe I can uncover the real reason Sarah built the mansion the way she did!
Winchester Mystery House is very easy to find, directly across from Santana Row in San Jose. Parking is available free on-site, with additional public parking across a small side street.
At $37 per adult, this is by no means a budget destination! We knew the exorbitant cost going in and still bitched a bit. Honestly, the price should be about $25 each for what you get. In the end we felt it was a day well spent, albeit too expensive!
Currently, they have a Mansion Tour available daily, but May 25 marks their first new tour in over 20 years. The Explore More Tour will showcase several rooms previously unavailable to the public, supposedly those with more supernatural activity. (We find the mansion so interesting we’ll be splurging for that tour also, adding $10 to the already overpriced entry fee for the luxury. They certainly are making a fortune!)
Tours depart every 10 minutes, with our time slot giving us enough time to peruse the gift shop. As usual, it’s mostly overpriced crap no one needs, especially immediately after forking over $80 for the tour itself.
I was extremely disappointed to find they do NOT allow photography inside the mansion for “copyright purposes.” I did however buy their guidebook for $10, so I will include photos I took of their photos. All interior photos are not originally mine and all copyright remains with the mansion.